Although we, in the Western world at least, are immersed for many years in educational efforts at the hands of family and social institutions, we never receive instruction in what is perhaps the single most important skill we can possess: working skillfully with challenging emotions. Instead we are left to figure it out ourselves, perhaps with some dubious guidance like "stop crying". And the worst of it is that challenging emotions that are not processed skillfully leave emotionally reactive scar tissue that accumulates and dogs us the rest of our lives, causing not only our own suffering but spreading suffering to those around us as we are driven by unconscious forces to act in ways that harm others. Fortunately, we CAN learn to process challenging emotions so they not only cause less suffering while they are arising, but also leave less reactive residue.
So what is the magic formula? Concentration, clarity, and equanimity. Here's how to do ti:
When strong emotions arise, turn your attention to body sensations associated with the strong emotions. They will be present, but it may take some practice to detect them if you have the common habit of ignoring them. Emotional body sensations tend to be most intense along the front central axis of the body, from the face to the genitals. Some examples of common emotional body sensations would include, in the case of sadness, a feeling of teariness around the eyes and quivering in the jaw, in the case of anger, heat in the face and tension in the shoulders and hands, etc. If you are experiencing strong emotions, there WILL be associated body sensations.
Having located some emotional body sensations, focus your attention on those body sensations, ignoring everything else. In particular, ignore any thoughts that may be arising. Easier said than done, right? The ability to ignore aspects of experience at will is part of the concentration skill you will develop with your mindfulness practice. For now, do the best you can. If your attention is pulled into thinking processes, just gently bring it back to body sensations. It might happen constantly at first, but don't be discouraged. This is normal.
Now, limiting your attention to your body, allow your attention to go wherever it is pulled by emotional body sensations. And each time your attention is drawn to an emotional body sensations, say out loud (if your circumstances permit, silently to yourself if not) the location of that body sensation. This labeling process might sound like this: "face" . . . "whole body" . . . "chest" . . . "face" . . . "face" . . . etc. Each time you label a location, take a few seconds to focus intensely on that sensation (if it lasts that long) before letting go of it and allowing your attention to be drawn to the next location, label the new location, pour attention into it for a few seconds, and let it go.
Try to use a labeling voice that is gentle and calm even if you are in the midst of sobbing or other powerful emotional manifestation. This invites a state of equanimity.
If the body sensation in a single location dominates, you may simply label that location repeatedly. Alternatively, you may drop the labels and deepen your exploration of the sensations occurring in that location. Try to map the experience in as much detail as possible, noting such characteristics as size of the sensation, any dynamic qualities like pulsation in intensity or physical extent, discernible "flavors" like fear, anger, sadness, etc. There may be multiple flavors and they may even seem to be conflicting or inappropriate. That's fine.
This is purely a feeling process rather than an intellectual, analytical process. No need to try and "figure out" what it means or why it is arising. The task at hand is simply to bring awareness to the body component of the emotional experience and give it complete permission to arise, abide, and pass away as it will.
If possible, continue this process of labeling the locations of emotional body sensations for as long as the challenging emotion is present.
Congratulations! You now know how to process intense emotions in a way that not only will prevent forming new layers of emotionally reactive scar tissue, but will heal scar tissue from previous traumas.